How can one actually describe the pain of an isolated man?

This question first popped into my head in the midst of a long and difficult night, the kind that sleep refuses to enter, making way instead for the ghosts of agonies past. As I simply lied still, alone with my thoughts, the face of an old tormenter began to appear in my mind, the face of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, a visage which has still never been surpassed before my eyes.

Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk remarked to the effect that if you force someone to be isolated and do nothing but reflect on their life for a prolonged period of time, they will either go mad and die or convert.

The COVID quarantine had forced many of us into just such an isolation. Even those among us who continued to work full-time—or indeed considerably more in my case—began to show symptoms of the madness. It manifested differently, depending on the disposition of the victim in question, but had a few terrible consistencies. In the early stages it was largely innocuous, with most simply falling into a never-ending void of Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming sites. Gradually, however, this slothful malaise, this tedious monotony, eroded the supposed sanity of most people, resulting in countless breakdowns and the schizophrenia that now passes as normal.

I was one of the fortunate few to survive the two years in quarantine more-or-less undemented. I don’t mean to sound as though I was completely fine, but my solitary lifestyle from before the crisis meant that I was weirdly conditioned for this new environment. Like most pigmentally-challenged young men, I was, to a large extent, pushed away from the center of social life and the nihilism it ultimately rested upon. And, like many others, I found myself participating in the fringe renaissance of do-it-yourself culture as a result. Internet forums, self-published books, a rediscovery of the classics, and a never-ending dance between free thinkers and social media giants became the new means of communicating with the wider world. And so, when Uncle Sam and the blue helmets ordered everyone to stay indoors, it wasn’t too much of a transition for many of us.

For the first year of quarantine, I read, wrote, and prayed daily, in between the shifts in my 50-hour work week. Grocery delivery services meant that I basically never had to leave home at all. What is most memorable from that time, however, was my acquaintance with my neighbor, whom I had never actually met before the lockdown.

Like so many others in the America of late capitalism, I never actually knew most of the people around me. You may live on the other side of a thin barrier of drywall, hear each other opening/closing doors, listening to music, talking, fucking, and so on, but it was always alien to us to actually knock on the door and introduce ourselves. After months of isolation, however, many extroverts began to get desperate, and—when the madness truly began to sink in—shout through the walls for desperate want to talk to someone. Brian was just such a man.

In the months before COVID, I had heard him, periodically, through the plaster wall and wood beams that pass for housing in low medium income areas. From the bits my ears picked up, he had been loud, prone to drink (cheap liquor from the occasional smell), had at least two or three girls in his orbit, and, in what seemed to be his most redeemable quality, was a fan of classic rock.

When he had gone quiet for over a week in the midst of the quarantine, therefore, it was initially something of a relief. I thought he had finally left to go “shelter-in-place” somewhere else as many others had done. When I heard three knocks on my front door, he was the last person I was expecting.

“Good morning, Daniel,” he said cheerfully, “hope you’ve been holding up okay?”

I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, and the puzzled look on my face must have been evident, because Brian quickly added, “it’s me, your neighbor, I should apologize for never actually taking the time to say hello before. So, nice to meet you, I guess.”

As he finished saying this, he pointed his elbow out in what has become the new sign of greeting in a post-handshake world. He stood exactly six feet away from me and continued grinning. It somehow wasn’t the creepy smile the deranged often leer with, and I felt no sense of danger. Rather, his seemed the grin of a genuine autist (in the literal A Beautiful Mind sense of that term).

“Nice to meet you, too,” I finally said after a few awkward moments. “Hope you’re holding up as well.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I just woke up a few minutes ago, I think I’ve been asleep for a while.”

“Yeah, it’s been quiet over there for about a week.”

“A week? Wow, I bet that’s how long I’ve been under for! Would explain why I was so hungry, ha ha! Anyway, after I had some food and a little tea, I felt a strange desire to come and make amends to everyone for being such a bad neighbor. You’ve all been very patient with me, and I want to let you know how much I appreciate that.”

The conversation went on in like manner for a few more minutes. It was only after I made it clear to him, after he asked several times, that yes, I indeed forgave him of the annoyances he caused, that he left, apparently to have the same conversation with the other neighbors. It was certainly an odd exchange, but then I just assumed he had actually been mildly autistic this whole time and I never realized it. The loneliness of the lockdown had finally gotten to him, and he just wanted human contact with somebody. I gradually let the whole episode fall from my mind.

A few days later, though, another neighbor apparently underwent a different kind of change. I first became aware of it with a shout, followed by the clear sounds of a struggle in the hallway outside my apartment. As I opened my door and stepped outside, I saw my other neighbor, an Irishman named Dave, standing over Brian in the hallway. The latter was now sporting a black eye.

Best I could tell from the only partially-coherent shouts and screeching is that Brian had paid Dave’s girlfriend a compliment as he passed them, and Dave, having been living like a caged animal for several months, reacted like a chimp asserting his authority. Dave’s eyes were full of hate and seemed almost black with fury. He was breathing heavily, almost…aggressively. I’ve been trying to think of how to describe it for over half an hour now, and I still can’t think of a better description than that. His whole frame lifted up and down violently, like the boiler about to blow up the Overlook Hotel. Behind him stood his scantily clad Latina fuckthing, seeming to cower in the face of the confrontation she inadvertently (?) provoked.

After a few moments, however, in which Dave simply looked at his vanquished rival on the ground before him, and then at me, a witness to his glory, he simply turned, patted his woman on the ass, and walked her into his apartment, from whence animal sounds were soon to emit. I helped Brian up and, seeing that his nose was bleeding something fierce, asked him to sit at my kitchen table while I found a bandage.

As I did so, I must have said something to the effect of “sorry to see what happened,” because Brian soon said, “Oh, it’s quite okay, he’s clearly been under a lot of stress and was feeling threatened,” in a mind-boggling reply. Once again, I must have had a stupefied look on my face, because he simply laughed and added, “If I were as lonely as most people, I would be desperate not to lose my only companion as well, especially if the only attachment I ever knew was the sexual and emotional co-dependencies most people mistake for love.” The reader is probably as confused as I was.

It was later that night, after I had sent Brian away with a bandaged nose and some aspirin, that I had the reflection on loneliness I alluded to before. I could not help but think that, though to a far less extreme degree, much of my action in life was driven by equally base impulses as how Dave had reacted before. Even the actions I didn’t take—not staying with a woman I liked due to inconvenient circumstances, not pursuing a new job for the sake of staying in a comfort zone, and so on—were equally motivated by anxiety and a desire not to feel vulnerable. This desire can easily disguise itself with anger, lust, sarcasm, and the like, but it will always be there. A man is tempted to sin in line with what he is already inclined to do.

Dostoevsky summed it up best when he said, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, he ceases to love.”

It was not a comforting conclusion to come to that night, but as least it was an honest one.

Brian would later disappear from the apartment complex and, rumor has it, had taken to volunteering at soup kitchens and halfway houses. At some point in the process, he supposedly caught the virus and died, a result of “a compromised immune system” he had as a result of his previous lifestyle. I was more upset by this news than I was by the deaths of my own relatives.

What to make of the whole episode? I think Brian was the Prince Myshkin of our day, that after he woke up from his delirium, he momentarily lost what it was to be a Modern. That part of us all which leaves us petty, mean, hyper-emotional, and slaves to impulse and passion had momentarily been switched off in him. It was an amazing thing to see: a real human.